All posts by vjz1

Day 7: In Which I Do Not Catch a Blue Morpho

Our last sunset from Las Cuevas

Our last day in the Chiquibul Forest started with a 5 am hike over some extremely steep paths that were still wet from yesterday’s rain. The leaves, tree roots, and mossy rocks were so slick, and I took two nasty spills – I landed on a tree root with my left butt cheek. Despite my searing leg muscles and the blossoming bruises on my butt, the view from the top of Bird Tower was worth the strenuous uphill hike. The sun was still low in the sky, and the forest still seemed to be waking up. Mist rolled in across lush montane forests as far as the eye could see. It was  breathtaking – both literally and figuratively.

View from the top of Bird Tower.

After breakfast, we set out for another long trek to retrieve our camera traps that we set on our first day at Las Cuevas. The hike was long, but the forest here is so inherently beautiful that I didn’t mind the sweat, sore muscles, and countless bug bites. I caught this strange goldenrod-colored butterfly that was bobbing along San Pastor road:

As per usual, every single blue morpho butterfly that we saw flew out of my reach. I’m very, very sad that I haven’t managed to catch Belize’s most iconic butterfly on this trip, but I guess it just means that I have to come back someday to finish my mission!

In the afternoon, we dug up a couple of leaf cutter nests to examine them from the inside. Scott, our resident ant expert, located the queen of a smallish nest for us, as well as the ants’ fungus garden in which they grow their food. The excavation was great exercise, but the ants that we uncovered were definitely not happy with us.

I got bitten by a mosquito right in the middle of my forehead as I was excavating the nest. Here’s Elena helping me put Cortisone on the largest bump in the history of ever.

Finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for – the checking of the camera traps. I don’t think any of us expected to actually find anything. Maybe a peccary or two if we were lucky. See, as loud, clunky humans that make huge amounts of noise as we travel along the trails, any mammals in the area were aware of our presence before we could even come close to spotting them. By this point in the trip, spotting large mammals in the Chiquibul seemed equivalent to seeing a unicorn.


In the very first trap! A tapir! And a magnificent jaguar, in perfect profile! Right there in the first trap, we captured two of the mammals that we most wanted to see. It only got better and better as we opened the rest of the traps. Of course, not all yielded anything, but most captured at least one or two animals. We saw so many peccaries – nine total.

We also saw a few curassows, two pumas, a coatimundi (kind of like a mix between a raccoon and a red panda), a coral snake, and a 9-banded armadillo. It was truly wild. When the first jaguar appeared on screen, all of us started screaming our heads off – spotting a jaguar is like the mother of all animal sightings in the Chiquibul.

But that wasn’t all! We saw not one, but TWO jaguars in our traps. Practically unheard of!! The big cats were of stocky, muscular build, and had intricate rosette patterning on their hide. I’m still in awe of them and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of looking at these pictures.

What a satisfying end to our stay at Las Cuevas and the Chiquibul Forest. It’s been an amazing, eye-opening experience. I can truly say that I’ve fallen in love with this place – chiggers, ticks, and all. I’m sad to leave tomorrow morning, but look forward to experiencing the reef.

Day 6: The Rainforest Lives Up to Its Name

There’s nothing that centers me quite like a torrential downpour can. I’ve always loved the scent of the Earth after it’s been washed clean. I find it calming and restorative. (And I just learned that this scent is actually the odor of soil bacteria!) I’m writing this blog as thunder is rolling through the gray skies and fat raindrops are pelting the ground. The sheer velocity of the rain is blowing a breeze through the screen windows.

I really can’t describe how oddly serene it is to sit on the floor of a non-air conditioned, wooden research station in the middle of the rainforest as the sky empties itself. It’s humbling. All life here depends on this rain, and today marks the first huge rain of the season. That means that the forest is about to come to life, even more than it already has been. We may get to witness the nuptial flight of ants, in which newborn queen ants and males take to the air in a gargantuan swarm to mate. Amphibians will be more active. It’s going to be a different forest now.

Other than enjoy the rain, we also collected our urine samples from a couple of days ago! On the way back from collecting the traps, I found a dying swallowtail butterfly on the side of the road being eaten by ants. It was was an elegant creature even as it was being gnawed on.

Poor little guy 🙁

Nitrogen an extremely important element that is vital to most life forms. It’s a surprisingly scarce element in a place as rich in life as the rainforest is. Because of this, we figured that more arthropods would cluster to our urine, which we used as a nitrogen source, in areas that are more nitrogen-poor. The forest canopy is actually more nitrogen-poor as compared to the forest floor, so we expected more critters to end up in our traps that we placed in the canopy.

After we sorted and counted the species of bugs, insects, and other invertebrates that we discovered in our pitfall traps, we actually ended up finding some pretty cool results. It was a long afternoon of sorting, counting, and identifying dead insects and bugs that were soaked in our own urine, but we ended up getting to present to a new group of college students that arrived at the station today. I think they were slightly grossed out by our poster, titled “To Pee or Not to Pee,” but I think our presentation went over pretty well.

Today was again a quiet day on the Lepidoptera front. I only spotted 4 blue morphos, all of which evaded me. I know that they purposely fly extremely erratically in order to escape from birds, and they’re certainly doing a great job of escaping from me. Alas.

Day 5: Creatures in the Night

Today started off with a spirited morning hike that was less than successful for me in my mission to catch a blue morpho. Sad. But, Elena did spot a helmeted iguana casually clinging to the side of a mossy tree! He/she/it was so cute, with little red eyes that casually watched us as the 12 of us bumbling humans oohed and aahed as only true TFBs can.

Helmeted iguana

Adrienne also spent the whole morning peeling bark off dead trees to look for scorpions and finally managed to find a couple hiding out in a lichen-covered log! I also snagged three butterflies in my net as we headed back to camp. Two were small orange and yellow sulfur butterflies, but one was a large golden butterfly that I’d never seen before. I found all three floating in the lower branches of understory brush.

Today marked the completion of our first full project. Belize is a tiny country flush against the ocean, making it vulnerable to hurricanes that periodically sweep through the country and flatten areas of the forest. Two years ago, Hurricane Earl was no exception.

Our project today aimed to understand the effects of these areas of hurricane-caused tree fall on the regrowth of understory plants. Since every tree that falls exposes a rare patch of sunlight on the forest floor, we thought that maybe there would be more plants growing in the fallen areas to suck up all the sunlight!

Unfortunately, we didn’t actually find any real difference in plant growth between fallen and non-fallen areas. It’s probably because all 10 of us are fools when it comes to identifying leaves – maybe we’ll have better luck once we actually learn how to identify plants.

After an afternoon of making a poster to display our non-data and listening to lectures, we ate dinner and headed out for the first night hike. We stopped by the frog pond, which is usually dry at this time of year, but to our happy surprise, there were actually a few inches of muddy water and dead leaves in the pond! The water teemed with tiny turtles. Scott picked one up, but it didn’t seem to be too happy so we let it go soon after. I caught an anole with an orange scale pattern on its back near the edge of the lake. He was also quite angry with me, so I let him go after he flashed his red neck flap a few times.

Here’s one of the mud turtles!

Can’t really see the anole in this pic, but he’s there, I promise! Also, don’t I kind of look like Jane Goodall? #goals

Overall, the night hike was filled with creepy crawlies of the night – plenty of katydids, one banded gecko, and a super strange gray moth that, when we lifted its wings, turned out to have a bright orange and black-striped furry body. It was resting on a broad leaf hanging into the trail and wasn’t even remotely disturbed by the annoying humans prodding at it.  Sadly, I couldn’t get a great photo of it because the lighting was so dim.

The Lepidoptera front was otherwise quiet today because we spent so much time inside on the poster, and butterflies didn’t seem to like the hurricane fall areas.

Tomorrow, we collect our pee traps. Yay!

Day 3: Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

I honestly don’t know how I hauled my bug bite-riddled butt out of bed to go bird watching this morning at 4:45am, but it happened. We spotted so many parrots and kites perching in the tops of trees. Breakfast was at 6am, and then we headed to the classroom for a meeting to discuss out first project of the trip: camera traps! After a long and intense discussion detailing the methodology of our first experiment, we headed out into the jungle recesses for the second time.

Our goal of the day was to set up our camera traps at strategic locations to hopefully catch some cool shots of rainforest mammals. We tramped through the dense foliage on a path covered with leaf litter and all forms of creepy crawlies that make the forest floor their home.

I was torn between keeping my eyes on the ground so I wouldn’t take even more spills, scanning the area for cool terrestrial animals like snakes or frogs, or watching the skies for butterflies flitting by. I failed miserably on the “not taking a spill” front – I pretty much have a map of bruises.

Today was my first day with the butterfly net! (Peep Elena smoldering in the back.)

I was just a “little* too excited about the butterfly net. The impulse to swing my new toy stick at every flying insect won out over the survival instinct telling me to keep my eyes to the ground. Blue morphos kept flitting tantalizingly near but flying away before I could even get within swinging distance. I’m determined, however! I’m sure that with the amount of shouting I get from the group every time someone spots a blue morpho, I’ll manage to snag one. Maybe. Hopefully.

Despite my lack of success with the blue morphos, I did catch seven butterflies, a pink katydid, and a moth today in my net. I spent a solid half hour in the hot sun of a forest pathway swinging at passing butterflies, perfecting my technique and sweating profusely.

Wouldn’t say I perfected it – not by a long shot – but I did make some pretty neat catches, some of which I’ve inserted here! The brown striped one is a Many-banded Daggerwing, and the other I believe is a species of Swallowtail. They were both zooming down the sides of an open forest path, which is where butterflies tend to be found.

Swallowtail butterfly Many-banded daggerwing

But the star of today’s show was not a Lepidopteran. As we were hacking through the brush to place a camera trap, we came across a magnificent iridescent boa constrictor!! It was coiled in the leaf litter, regarding us with clear annoyance and suspicion. It was a truly beautiful creature. Its scales were brown with darker brown and black splotches, and its entire body gave off an iridescent sheen that reminded me of the surface of soap bubbles. It was probably 5 or 6 feet long. Here it is:


Dinner tasted so, so good after a long day of meetings, lectures, and hiking. Tomorrow, there will be more. My body is protesting and my brain hurts a little from the sleep deprivation, but I’m ready to tackle the Chiquibul Forest once again.

But first, some sleep.





Day 2: Welcome to the Jungle

To say that today has been eventful would be the understatement of understatements. It’s now 11pm as I write this, and I’ve been up since 4:50 am. Places we visited this morning seem like days ago, and I barely even remember what we ate for breakfast. (That’s a lie – we had a great breakfast of scrambled eggs and cheese and watermelon etc. and I do remember it.) But my tiredness and the humidity in the air are quickly emptying memories out from my head, so I’m going to jot them down and pass out until 4:30am!! yEET

The goal for today was to travel from the very edge of the Maya Forest to Las Cuevas Research Station in Chiquibul National Park. We left bright and early (like, 7am early. Who even am I?). Along the way, we stopped at some absolutely beautiful pools that were part of a river and aptly named Rio On Pools.

Rio On Pools!

The water was cool and refreshing, a welcome respite from the oppressive humidity. It would have been perfect if not for the 10495783 LEECHES THAT ATTACHED THEMSELVES TO MY BUTT AS I WAS BUTT-SCOOTING THROUGH THE RAPIDS. UM, EXCUSE ME??! They were small and painless though, so they were more gross than harmful.

After picking off the leeches, we dried off and headed along the exceedingly bumpy road to Caracol, a magnificent ancient Mayan city that was deserted by 1000 AD. Our tour guide, Leo, was extremely knowledgeable and seemed to have an answer to every question. We climbed over dilapidated gray remnants of homes and temples as we listened to Leo’s insight, although I was pretty distracted by the many butterflies flitting about. I think I spotted a red postman butterfly hovering near some white flowers and countless swallowtails dipsy-doodling in the fields of Caracol. #TFB.

We even managed to haul ourselves to the top of a temple, the tallest building in Belize, for an incredible view of the rainforests of both Belize and Guatemala. Unfortunately, a haze of smoke from Guatemala’s deforestation projects shrouded the area.

View from the top of the highest building in Belize. 

As someone who lives in suburban Plano, TX and goes to school in a large city, seeing anything other than manicured lawns, squirrels, and rabbits counts as exciting.But today we hiked through some wild jungle, witnessed howler monkeys, scarlet macaws, tree frogs, parrots, and more. And at least 15 Blue Morphos, Belize’s most famous butterfly, flitted by the path in their characteristically erractic flight. I tried swiping at the them with my net but failed miserably. NEXT TIME I SHALL SUCCEED.

It didn’t end there – after dinner and the student lectures, I saw upwards of 20 species of moths hanging around the lamps at the station at around 9 pm. They were inexplicably drawn to the light sources and sat docilely on the walls as if hypnotized. Naturally, I ran around like a woman possessed snapping pictures and jotting descriptions. Here first is an imperial moth, but the second I couldn’t identify. They both had at least a 9 cm wingspan.

Good night, friends!

Day 1: Arrival

I knew for sure that I had arrived in Belize before I even exited the plane or looked out the windows. As soon as the airplane doors opened, the warm air seeped in, smelling like forest, as much as forest can be said to have a smell.

My first impression upon stepping out of the plane was that Belize is hot and humid enough to make Houston seem positively air-conditioned. After the group passed through security and customs, we met our driver, Edward. He drove us about three hours across the country to an eco-lodge called Crystal Paradise Resort, where we would be staying the night. Along the way, we passed through fascinating savannah landscapes that were dotted with trees. Apparently, we’re arriving at the very end of the dry season, so wild fires are still a common sight. We even passed a section that had been recently burned – the blackened skeletons for the trees were still smoking.

We reached the beginning of the mountainous, hilly region of Belize just as the sun began to sink in the sky. Tall, dark swathes of trees stood against a salmon sky hazy with smoke. As the pavement transitioned to a dirt road, the 12 of us rattled around in the van with every bump. By the time we reached the resort, it was clearly nightfall, with lighting occasionally spreading across the sky.

Our rooms are super cute, and there was even a folded towel-swan decorated with hibiscus flowers waiting for us! There is, of course, no air conditioning, which we’ll all have to get used to. Dinner was fantastic as well, with some truly delicious veggie curry and chocolate cake! Like the sea urchins I will study on this trip, I’m an opportunistic feeder (HAHAHAHA sorry I had to) and stuffed myself while I still had access to this delicious food.

Lepidoptera count for today:

-1 unidentified, erratically flying large white moth

-2 unidentifiable micro-moths

-1 orange, fuzzy moth that got eaten by a gecko a few minutes after I found it :'(

-1 large green sphinx moth

I’ve inserted photos of these two specimens here!

It’s an early morning tomorrow (breakfast at 6am!!) so I’m calling it for today. Good night!


Basically Steve Irwin

Hi friends, I’m Veronica! Tomorrow, we go to Belize. Here are some thoughts.

I was an interesting sort of kid – I was quite socially awkward, listened only to classical music (my  favorite composer was Bach. Who’s Rihanna anyway?), and I didn’t watch any of the classic Disney Channel TV shows. Most importantly, I was absolutely obsessed with Animal Planet’s show The Crocodile Hunter. The show’s host, Steve Irwin, was my childhood hero. I remember sitting in front of the TV with my little brother, both of us riveted, as Steve fearlessly wrangled wild creatures or snagged the tiniest critters for the camera to see.

My younger brother and I were more interested in tiny shore critters on Daytona Beach than we were in Disney World. 

I think that my devotion to Mr. Irwin and his show planted in my brain a fascination with wild places and their inhabitants. This is why I’ve been all but vibrating with excitement for this trip for the last month or so.  I’ve never had any experience with field research, in the tropics or elsewhere, so I’m not sure what to expect. But I’m guessing it’s going to involve equal amounts of sweat and labor as rewarding finds and learning. I’m ready for it! (I think? I’m pretty out of shape, so I’m not sure how well I’ll handle the physical activity…but my mind is ready so BRING IT ON.)  This trip is probably going to involve a lot of physical discomfort and wistful thoughts of air conditioning. But I do expect to put in some sweat to learn things that I could never learn from a textbook! I’m tired of classrooms. I am incomprehensibly excited to learn how to locate different organisms in the field, or how to decipher forest sounds. I can’t wait to learn hands-on how ecologists gather their hard-earned data.

My preparation for the trip has been rather frantic. I’ve been scurrying all over town in the past couple of months to collect all the required equipment. I even bought a prescription snorkel mask so I can see underwater, which I’m SUPER pumped about! I’ve also pored over the required reading materials, spent hours upon hours researching microbial processes of coral reefs, and researched all I can about echinoderms (think starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers) and lepidopterans (butterflies and moths). And, of course, I’ve hyped myself up for the trip by watching nature documentaries. My only apprehensions lie in my complete inexperience. I can be clumsy. Combined with my utter un-fit-ness, I’m afraid that in my physically exhausted state, I’ll be a drag on the group. I hope that I can keep up with the pace of the trip. And, of course, I hope we don’t run into any grumpy peccaries (like wild pigs) or fer-de-lances (species of venomous snake).

What  I want to accomplish most during this trip is to scratch that itch I’ve always had in the back of my mind to go venturing out into the wild, if only for a little bit. I also hope to learn about what field ecology entails and to gain intimate understanding of tropical and neotropical ecosystems. I want to find specimens of the echinoderms  and lepidopterans I’ve researched. But I think my core excitement for this course stems from a simple place: the little kid inside me really, really wants to get out there and explore, just like Steve Irwin.

On that note, WE LEAVE TOMORROW?! Amazing.

Catch you all in Belize!